St. Paul’s earliest epistles begin a classification of sinful behavior, but there would hardly be much debate about the sins he singles out. In 1 Corinthians 5 Paul outlines moral outrages he has heard about in Corinth: incest, covetousness, idolatry, abuse, cheating, drinking, thieving, prostitution, fornication. In Chapter 10ff he goes on to address overconfidence, what meats to purchase at market, and proper attire of women. He saves his biggest volley for 1 Corinthians 11: 17-34, where he addresses the conduct of Christians gathering for the Lord’s meal, which included drunkenness and insensitivity to the poor members. Paul’s letters were circulated throughout the early Church and we have to think that 1 Corinthians would have enjoyed a preeminence where questions of moral behavior were concern.
The early Paul would later be enriched by the later Gospels as I mentioned last Monday: along with sinful acts to be avoided, the New Testament most famously would proclaim a morality of supreme virtue, as exemplified on Matthew’s Beatitudes and Luke’s parables of mercy. It is encouraging in our present day that the Catechism of the Catholic Church devotes a great deal of text to the building of virtue.
If we look at the very last books of the New Testament, such as the Epistles of John, the authors laboriously emphasize the importance of love and unity. “Little children, love one another.” By this phase of the Church’s development, perhaps around 100 A.D., the social nature of the Church was evolving, too. The controversial Catholic scholar Hans Kung would write his The Church in 1967 after the Council, where he would contrast the somewhat charismatic structure and life of the earliest Church with the more structured governance of teaching and rites coming from established strong bishops of the second century, such as Ignatius of Antioch. Kung laments certain aspects of this evolution, but after 100 the Church was a more complicated body facing a multitude of more complex problems.
In fact, morality as a separate entity was not among the Church’s greatest concerns in the second century. In this period the two major factors of Church life appear to be significant assaults on basic beliefs about Jesus, and persecution and the cult of martyrs. The second century Church found itself besieged on multiple fronts. After the second fall of Jerusalem in 135 A.D., relations between Christians and Jews became more acrimonious. Basic Christian beliefs such as the humanity and divinity of Christ were under consistent philosophical attack by those who maintained that Jesus was not truly a man but a divine vision or illusion (Docetism) or the reverse, that Jesus was a man but not divine, a position that would eventually be known as the Arian heresy.
The second century gave the Church its first true post-Apostolic defenders of the faith, the philosopher-apologists Justin Martyr, Tertullian, and Origen, as well as the canon or collection of Books we know today as the New Testament. There was a strong ethos of common loyalty in belief; creation of discord or a less than intense commitment to the primitive body of Christian beliefs was seen as a major moral betrayal of the Body of Christ, particularly as many Christians were actually shedding their blood.
For this was indeed the beginning of the age of the martyrs. The Roman Empire condemned Christianity for, rather surprisingly, atheism, or what the Empire saw as a disregard of the state religion, a form of emperor worship that Christians could never subscribe to. Persecution in the second century was not as severe as it would become later, but it was bad enough in a number of sites, notably Lyons in modern France. Roman governors themselves were somewhat cynical about religion. In 117 A.D. Pliny the Younger satisfied himself that Christians in his region were not cannibals and he did not conduct persecutions. However, local disasters or military setbacks were blamed on Christian indifferentism, and in these cases the treatment of Christians could be extraordinarily cruel.
Roman law followed procedure, and those slated for martyrdom were often imprisoned for some time before meeting their fate. The position of the martyr-candidate was unique in the Church, individuals who had attained the martyr’s crown of glory. Perhaps the two most famous martyrs of this era were Perpetua and Felicity, who left behind a remarkable and apparently reliable journal of their travails in a Roman prison in 203 A.D. Perpetua was a nursing mother and Felicity was her pregnant slave. Part of Perpetua’s dilemma was arrangement for the care of her infant before she faced wild beasts in the circus.
The courage of such martyrs set a very high standard of fidelity for the Christian assembly. One of the most serious moral failures of a Christian was abandonment of the faith during persecution, or “apostasy.” This sin, along with murder and adultery, were considered the three sins serious enough to place one outside the saving Christian assembly. In the third century, the Church developed a rite for forgiveness and reunion with the Eucharistic banquet, the first form of what we know today as canonical Penance or the Sacrament of Penance. As part of the process, the sinner was required to visit the Roman prison and receive the blessing and recommendation from one who was about to die. Next Monday we will look at the third century practice of the forgiveness of sin and why it eventually passed out of existence until the Irish revisited the issue of sin and repentance several centuries later.